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BrooklynSpeaks, pols propose new AY governance structure; ESDC wary

The BrooklynSpeaks coalition, which has taken a “mend it don’t end it” posture toward Atlantic Yards and thus gained the support of several local elected officials, yesterday proposed a new governance structure for the project, which, under the best scenario, could take a decade to be built, but might last 20 years, according to the project landscape architect.

The coalition, spearheaded by the Municipal Art Society along with several Brooklyn neighborhood groups, citywide groups, and even a couple of national ones, recommends that a Planning and Oversight entity, involving government agency representatives and local elected officials, be set up to oversee implementation of the project, including future changes. Also, a Stakeholder Council involving local groups would play an advisory role. (See diagrams from BrooklynSpeaks.)

However, there's no assurance that such a structure could actually impose changes (like a significant reduction in the project's size)--that would depend more on political forces--and the initial response from the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), was lukewarm.

“We’re going to review what’s proposed, but I think the sense here is that the form of governance isn’t as important as the substance of that governance,” spokesman Errol Cockfield said. “Since we’ve come into office, we’ve put several efforts in motion to make sure this project is closely monitored.”

While Cockfield is mindful of the criticism that the ESDC's plan for an ombudsperson was announced more than three months ago, he said, “Given the demands of the position, we want to make sure we choose the right candidate.” (Atlantic Yards critics, of course, would point to the ESDC under the previous administration of Gov. George Pataki, which rushed the approval of the project.)

Official backing

The Regional Plan Association's Rob Lane in May criticized AY as an example of the government's unwillingness to oversee "city-making," major projects that extended over several administrations, and several elected officials yesterday essentially made that point.

“One of the most alarming aspects of the Atlantic Yards process over the last few years has been Forest City's lack of accountability to the public,” said Brooklyn City Councilman David Yassky in a statement. “This must change. An appropriate governance structure should be put in place to actively monitor any developments in the Atlantic Yards Project.”

Yassky, though he wasn’t present at the press conference at Borough Hall, is among several elected officials supporting the proposal. Assemblyman Jim Brennan, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and City Council Member Letitia James attended. Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and State Senator Eric Adams sent representatives. (James and Montgomery, the clearest Atlantic Yards opponents, clearly are willing to maintain pressure in an alternate mode.)

I couldn’t make the press conference—there were infrastructure issues with the subway after yesterday's storm—but did gather reactions from a variety of stakeholders.

The Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), which includes members of BrooklynSpeaks and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), supports the process, stating: “CBN was formed to facilitate the community’s role in the environmental review of a proposed development over the Vanderbilt rail yards, as required by legislation. At that time it wasn't imagined that the community would have to insist again and again on its rightful and traditional role of oversight in the development of the Yards!”

CBN, unlike BrooklynSpeaks, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the project's environmental review.

DDDB: remember the lawsuits

DDDB, in a statement, made reference to pending lawsuits it has spearheaded: “The State has a responsibility to the public vis-a-vis Atlantic Yards, which it currently is not fulfilling. So of course there needs to be a governance structure in place which includes community stakeholders, community boards, and local elected officials if Atlantic Yards goes forward. A well-organized governance structure should have been in place and acting months ago. Having said that, we are optimistic that the eminent domain lawsuit and the community's legal challenge to the project's approval will stop the misguided Atlantic Yards project.”

“Then we can start over, and we can move forward with the revived and revised community plan for the rail yards, known as the UNITY Plan. That plan would start with a democratic process to achieve responsible development over the rail yards, with government and community input and oversight from the beginning, instead of tagged on, as an afterthought, at the end.”

What’s the precedent?

BrooklynSpeaks suggested that the Project Planning and Oversight Entity “could be established as an ESDC subsidiary, comparable to Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation or Queens West, both of which were created specifically to involve local representation in the decision-making for those projects.”

As for the Stakeholder Council, it would include representatives from local community groups, including supporters and opponents of the current project: “Similar stakeholder groups in other projects–such as the Gowanus Expressway Stakeholders Group–have demonstrated how the State and local communities can work together successfully.”

CBN agreed, saying, “In every major development in New York City, community participation and oversight have been the norm,” citing Battery Park City and Riverside South, and calling Atlantic Yards “a singular aberration.”

Not so fast, according to the ESDC. The agency's Cockfield suggested a distinction, that LDCs—local development corporations—have more typically been created for projects in which a governmental entity has taken the lead. However, Atlantic Yards, he said, is more comparable to a project like the Columbia University expansion, in which a nongovernmental private entity has taken the lead.

(There would be a local development corporation formed to issue bonds for the arena, but the ESDC in the AY General Project Plan did not suggest any oversight role.)

More officials comment

From the BrooklynSpeaks press release:
“We still have no real governance structure in place, no ombudsman, and no place for the community to voice their concerns,” said Councilmember Letitia James. “The 421-a tax abatement carve-out for the Ratner project is beyond unacceptable. It shows yet again that this project is not, and has never been, about the community benefits.”

"There needs to be a conversation between the State and the communities affected by this project that rationalizes, i.e. downsizes the project, while assuring that the affordable housing gets built. The current plan and structure will not accomplish these desired results and that’s why I am endorsing the community-based governance structure proposed by Brooklyn Speaks," said Assembly member Jim Brennan.

“Local elected officials, community organizations, civic groups, and individual residents have been afforded no significant, consequential input during the decision-making process for what is by far Brooklyn’s most ambitious development proposal, Atlantic Yards. The governance design unfolded today will provide a means for comprehensive oversight of all phases of this project and a mechanism for the people of Brooklyn and their representatives to have a meaningful voice in an endeavor that will so profoundly affect our borough,” said State Senator Eric Adams.

“We hope to start a serious conversation about how the public can be involved in the governance of this project. The impact of this project if it moves forward is simply too big for New Yorkers not to be listened to.” said Jo Anne Simon, Democratic District Leader for the 52nd Assembly District.

Among the dailies, only the New York Post covered the story, in a brief article headlined POLS SEEKING SAY ON ARENA.

The governance paper

“Reforming the governance of Atlantic Yards: A roadmap”, still in draft form, states:

Since the time Atlantic Yards was announced in December 2003 until now, local residents, civic and community organizations and local elected officials have been excluded from meaningful involvement in the decision-making process for Brooklyn’s biggest development project. While the announcement in May from the Empire State Development Corporation of new measures to increase government oversight and coordination over the Atlantic Yards project is a positive step, the State has yet to propose how the local community, local elected officials and the general public will be meaningfully engaged in the planning for a project that is likely to be built out over several decades.

No involvement

The report argues that the public has been excluded from meaningful involvement in project decision-making because “the state and city chose to use the land use approval process set out by the Urban Development Corporation act of 1968, which required only votes by the ESDC board and the Public Authorities Control Board, rather than the review mandated by the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP)."

By contrast, other nominally state projects, like Battery Park City, have gone through ULURP, which requires input from the local community boards, Borough President, City Planning Commission, and the City Council.

Despite the opportunity to participate in the environmental review, “no significant changes to the project to the project resulted from the public’s participation,” with a limited period for public comment, and the only significant changes “were made in response to comments submitted by the Department of City Planning and the Borough President of Brooklyn. According to press reports, many of these changes were agreed upon well in advance of the public comment period.”

The Public Authorities Control Board approved the project last December “after a minimum of review.” Moreover, the report states, “Only recently have financial assumptions concerning the project been made public.”

Existing governance

The report states:
Under the governance structure in place before the ESDC’s May 7 2007 announcement, the State and the City were technically responsible for overseeing the project, but neither entity had established specific mechanisms in order to do so. It was anticipated that construction work, traffic mitigation and other issues would be monitored by the responsible city agency, such as the Department of Buildings or Department of Transportation. However, no mechanism was in place to coordinate between the different agencies, liaise with the public, or continually review the planning and design of the project over its lifespan.

The report points out that the developer’s Community Liaison Office can’t represent the public and that Community Benefits Agreement signatories assigned to monitor the project aren’t accountable to the public.

The ESDC on May 7 announced some new initiatives, not yet all in place, including the ombudsperson, an Owner’s Representative to monitor construction activities; an interagency working group; a transportation working group, and regular meetings “to update and inform elected officials.” While the governance report says that’s progress, the measures “fall short of providing meaningful local participation and public accountability.”

Why? The only policy-making entity established by the ESDC appears to be the transportation working group. Other issues, including construction impacts, environmental impacts, secondary displacement, public services, safety and security, workforce development, and project phasing all deserve scrutiny.

Also, there’s no role for local elected officials in project decisionmaking, nor any role for Community Boards, and “no mechanism for the public and the local community to have a meaningful voice.”

And over a decade or two, that won’t work, especially given the inevitable turnover in governmental personnel: “Given that almost every aspect of the project is likely to change during the project’s life cycle, it is unacceptable for the public to continue to be unrepresented in the decision-making process for Atlantic Yards.”

New entities

The Planning and Oversight Entity would be responsible for reviewing and approving all changes to the project and policy surrounding it, monitor mitigations and ensure delivery of public benefits. The Stakeholder Council “could establish working committees to address particular categories of project issues (e.g., transportation, public services, open space, urban design, workforce development, etc.).” The council, however, would be only advisory.

Can they effect change? The report suggests they can:
The establishment of representative decision-making and community advisory bodies would help make the Atlantic Yards project a genuine public/private partnership. However, their simple establishment alone will not resolve the flaws in the project, including its overwhelming density and height of its buildings; its lack of a transportation plan; and its failure to address the housing needs of thousands of local families whose incomes would not qualify them for housing in the new project. These flaws are the direct result of Atlantic Yards having been conceived and planned without adequate public participation, and can only begin to be addressed as Atlantic Yards moves forward if public is meaningfully engaged in the decision-making for the project.

But there's a big "if" in that statement. Changes likely would depend more on politics than structure; there's no reason for the ESDC to shrink the project, for example, and certain changes might raise questions about opening up the environmental review, thus generating delay.

If the structure would delay the project, rather than smooth its implementation, then the Spitzer administration would be unlikely to welcome it. On the other hand, if the project proceeds but generates more local conflict, new structures might take the heat off.

Back in Brooklyn

Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board 6, said yesterday that the CB has not officially responded, but noted he personally welcomed the initiative. “The reality is, the deeper we get into this, the more we’re going to have to pull together,” he said. Robert Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, said the CB had only seen a draft.

And has Borough President Marty Markowitz, an Atlantic Yards booster, weighed in? Not yet, according to BrooklynSpeaks.


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